There is a little blink-and-you’ll miss it doorway in Millom, the entrance of The Beggar’s theatre. Tucked away in this tiny Cumbrian town, it’s one of the many small theatres staffed heavily by volunteers that myself and many other comics play on tour. Stadium-filling comedy superstars go there to practise new shows and warm up. It’s also a thriving youth theatre and, when the comics come, it’s the youth theatre members who sweep the floor, set up the folded seats in rows and shyly ask if we would like a drink.
The theatre is no-frills, to say the least. “Backstage” is a tiny area separated from the audience by just a curtain. What it lacks in frills, it oozes in spirit and the abundant hospitality of Jakki Moore, who told me when I first went there “the theatre lost 100 per cent of their funding so the local community pulled together and reopened it. That’s why we are called ‘The Beggar’s’!” Little theatres like this one across the country are the life-blood of the live performance, the artistic hub of small communities like Millom.
I mention these theatres as this week I was, as they say, ‘triggered’ by a tweet (has this ever happened to anyone else?) There was a column in The Telegraph this week with the heading “Theatre stands on the brink of ruin”, and Igor Toronyi-Lalic, The Spectator’s arts editor, posted the column with the comment “good” and sent it out to the world as the theatres all over the country and thousands of livelihoods are in danger of disappearing.
After the inevitable “what do you mean ‘good?’ Are you an arts editor or an actual banana?” replies, he followed up with another tweet explaining “English theatre bores me… Excited by the prospect of a load of huge cheap empty spaces in central London suddenly opening up to new art forms”.
How do we unpack this attitude without simply screaming “you utter utter melon”? Firstly, London is not the only city in the UK which has theatres; they are all over the place, from Cornwall to the Highlands, and it’s not just “English theatre” performed in them. Secondly, they won’t become quirky experimental art venues if they go bust. They will go the same way as live music venues did. The Hacienda is now a block of flats. Thirdly, you utter utter melon. (I didn’t manage it, sorry.)
What kind of arts editor imagines Les Miserables will close and people will flock to see in its place a new art form being developed using just ferrets and old bicycles?
I saw Fleabag at the Soho Theatre when it was in its first run. It was in the studio, not the main space – a little room which fits 60 people. I was in the bar and a friend said: “Wanna see this play upstairs? ‘Sposed to be really good. I got comp tickets.” Ten minutes later I was sat three feet away from Phoebe Waller-Bridge as she perched on a stool and delivered her gamechanger.
Fancy dismissing “English theatre”.
The live comedy circuit is the closest thing we have to the glorious tradition of vaudeville. Pantos, dance, youth theatre, comedy: all live shows rely on theatres surviving this pandemic. This isn’t about personal artistic taste. The Nuffield Theatre in Southampton went into administration this month. I have played there on tour many times and its fate is both sad and terrifying. Others will undoubtedly follow. All those gorgeous venues tucked away in little market towns with lovely staff and the sweet plate of backstage sandwiches and crisps which their budgets will allow, where locals come and watch for birthdays and anniversaries or just a night out with their mates, are all in danger.
I performed my show about Emma Hamilton and Horatio Nelson last year at Bristol Old Vic to a sold out audience, (I know, there was no real reason to mention it was sold out) and it was incredible to know that it was likely that they themselves would have made the trip from Bath, where they holidayed together and enjoyed a show in that very theatre. Like all theatre, The Old Vic is under threat. Without it, is Bristol even Bristol?
The arts industry seems to be at the bottom of the food chain in terms of industries to be helped to get back on their feet. It was announced today that footballers can go back to training and the two-metre rule will not apply. Obviously, football is a huge business, but the passion people feel for football and the emotions it evokes isn’t a million miles away from theatre. It matters to fans to see matches live, to be a part of the spectacle. I get it. We need it and we need theatre.
There are thousands of people who worked in the arts and are now left wondering if they will ever have their careers back. Myself included. For me, the joy of stand up has been doing live shows in theatres. I have little interest in doing comedy online; others do it brilliantly, but my love is for grungy venues with a sticky stage. I want to be in the same room as the people I’m performing to.
I want this government to give the live arts industry the serious support it needs, and help find ways to open theatres safely. Theatre is not a luxury. Without live arts, are we even human?
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